When you insist that a student “reflect” on years of failing standardized test scores, are you a bully? Seriously. Let’s think about it. There’s a power imbalance between the student and teacher. There exists a continuous pattern of exerting the power to point out a negative attribute to the less powerful. Students, teachers, administrators and parents become bystanders directly or indirectly supporting the reflecting. You get the picture.
A lover of student-centered learning, I was drawn to student-led conferencing from my first contact with it. How empowering for a student to be in charge of sharing their academic life with their parents! In fact, my first experience with student-led conferencing was as a parent when my daughter was in middle school. She was empowered. I actually chuckle when I write this, because she was that kid that was always organized and empowered. She exhibited leadership among her peers. She confidently addressed concerns she had with teachers and administrators, and with me. Somehow though, through student-led conferencing she showed me more of who she was as a student.
A year after that conference, I became a middle school teacher in charge of supporting my students as they collected, organized and prepared for their student-led conferences. I started to take note of students who didn’t have parents come and attend the conferences. I observed apathetic students exerting little into this empowering experience. It saddened me to see how unmotivated they were toward the one tool that could really catapult a child’s self-esteem.
Alas, student-led conferencing had become a victim of goal displacement, I realized. We had become so focused on making sure that the students presented what we felt was important that it became more student-presented than student-led.
In an effort to bring student-led conferencing back to a true differentiated empowering experience, two colleagues and I set out to make them student-led again. We established a framework with flexibility to ensure that students had choice (here comes motivation) in what they selected for their portfolio. We added a gallery walk so students could showcase, share, and demonstrate pride in their achievements in extracurricular and recreational activities.
As I began to implement the framework, students began inquiring about online projects and printing and scanning work from so many sources. In order to help students manage multiple formats of work, I created intranet folders. Since our students did not have email accounts, and so, no Google Drive or Dropbox, the folders were a great solution. Consistent with our school’s expectations, I screen-shot infographics of each students’ longitudinal data. And that’s when the bells went off in my head.
Slowly I saw motivated students physically retract at the sight of their test scores and at my instructions to include last year’s scores and set goals for this year. For a few kids, this is when the wheels literally fell off the bus. I suddenly was overcome with empathy for these students who had not ever performed well on standardized tests. The red indicator color made me want to throw out my red pens forever.
Empathy is the critical component to halting bullying. I was overwhelmed with it. Instead of taking the two-edged sword speech out and telling the student they had to be accountable and there was still time, while at the same time with all sincerity cheering them on with you have some great work samples! Your Mom will be so proud of your improvements in Math, I gulped. The reflective professional development I led on bullying two years earlier was gripping my tongue. I knew it had to stop. I had to stop.
The next day, I told the students the story of my struggle with Algebra II/Trig. I told them how hard I worked, putting in extra studying time and seeking a tutor. “While I always earned As and Bs, I got a C, and my rocket scientist Daddy will tell you to this day that he was never more proud of me than at that time.” I immediately asked their permission (a nice tool from motivational interviewing) if we could alter the framework so it included not just student choice of a best work, but of an earlier attempt or first draft of what would become the best work. “Show your parents how your hard work paid off”, I cheered! “And as far as your test scores go”, I continued, “make sure you look at your Lexile scores, your attendance, your behavior record.” Each student found something in their academic life that made them proud.
Reflective educators know the value of reviewing and evaluating past work. The critiques guide future actions. We also search for new tools to constantly improve how we implement changes. If we want our students to be reflecting, we must teach them how the reflection can guide future actions. We must also teach them how to find new tools to implement change. Having a child reflect on poor scores is not in and of itself bullying. When is reflecting bullying? It’s all about relationships and how we ask them to do it.
Motivational speaker, teacher and Meego® inventor, Laura Penrod Stock, suggests an empathetic and growth oriented mindset keeps reflecting from becoming bullying.